Archive for: May, 2012

Top 10 Rare Science Moments

May 30 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Things have been cranking in the lab now that the summer has begun. The undergraduates are getting settled in and everyone is in a take no prisoners mind set. This is good.

There is a lot not to like about this job, with it's long hours and endless ways to make you question your intelligence via a litany of creative sources of rejection. However, there are many things to like as well.

This is my list of what keeps me motivated. Your drivers may be different, but these are my Top Ten Rare Science Moments that allow me to take the money chase, service bullshit and repeated rejection, in stride.

10. Seeing undergraduates get engaged in the work they are doing in the lab.

9. When shiny new equipment gets delivered.

8. Having a grad student or postdoc run with an idea for all the right reasons.

7. Watching someone from the lab give a killer talk.

6. The day that large amounts of data become available (Data Christmas).

5. The excitement of a trainee when they find something really cool.

4. Manuscript acceptance notification.

3. When the data lead you to a simple and testable hypothesis with enormous implications.

2. When your hypothesis turns out to be correct.

1. Grant funding notification.

What would you add?

20 responses so far

Is "The Big Pitch" testing what NSF thinks it is?

May 25 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Say you have an experiment that is working, but you want to see if you can get a better yield. How do you go about troubleshooting the work? Would you change one potential variable at a time so that you could see the effect of each independently before you started to mix and match or would you change everything at once and sort out the mess later?

NSF seems to be taking the latter approach in their The Big Pitch initiative. In an attempt to determine whether potentially "transformative" proposals were being selected against in the review process the MCB division of NSF BIO chose a panel with 55 proposals on the biological consequences of climate change and asked the PIs to write a traditional proposal and a 2 page "anonymous" proposal. The carrot was that the awards were going to be split between the panel reviewing the full proposals and the separate panel reviewing the short ones. Guess what? Everyone agreed to write the 2 pager*.

So what happened? The two panels came up with a very different "High Priority" list and now people are quick to say "ZOMG, normal panels are just a buddy system discriminating against the lowly and unknown!"

To wit:

Shirley Taylor, an awardee during the evolution round of the Big Pitch, says a comparison of the reviews she got on the two versions of her proposal convinced her that anonymity had worked in her favor. An associate professor of microbiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Taylor had failed twice to win funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of an enzyme in modifying mitochondrial DNA.

The Big Pitch format could “remove bias and allow better support of smaller, innovative research groups that otherwise might be overlooked,” Taylor adds. “The current system is definitely a ‘buddy system’ where it's not what you know but who you know, where you work, and where you publish. And the rich get richer.”

OF COURSE it was the anonymity! It couldn't have been that Dr. Taylor is better at selling an idea in 2 pages than in 15 (or 12 in NIH's case). It also couldn't have been that an idea can look good until you ask who is going to do it.

Both times, she says, reviewers questioned the validity of her preliminary results because she had few publications to her credit. Some reviews of her full proposal to NSF expressed the same concern. Without a biographical sketch, Taylor says, reviewers of the anonymous proposal could “focus on the novelty of the science, and this is what allowed my proposal to be funded.”

Now, I have to say I'm conflicted on this last part. Whereas I don't believe that you need to have XX number of papers to your name before you can be funded to do something, I have been first-hand witness to shenanigans whereby someone was able to sell science that was beyond them (and with which they had no experience) simply because the reviewers didn't have a CV. It didn't end well and significantly stunted at least one trainee's career. No matter what people claim in terms of "it's all who you know**", you will never convince me that a PI's CV is not a valuable document to a reviewer. We may judge the future on the science, but we judge the likelihood of success, to some degree, on the PI's history. It's all we have to go on, barring advances in time travel.

An interesting observation from this process is something that DrugMonkey has contended for a while with regard to reviewers - just because You are convinced that Dr. Smith reviewed your proposal, doesn't make it true. The opposite appears true here as well:

In both Big Pitch rounds, reviewers evaluating the anonymous two-pagers were later told the identity of the applicants. In some cases, Chitnis says, panelists were surprised to learn that a highly rated two-pager had come from a researcher they had never heard of. In others, he notes, reviewers “thought they knew who this person is going to be” only to find that the application came from a former student of the presumed bigwig, working at a small institution.

Does this prove anything? It seems to only muddy the waters for me. In two pages I can sell a project simply by being well-read on the topic. What are the chances that anyone who is well-read on a topic is going to concentrate on what the bigwigs are doing? By proposing something along the lines of the trend setters, reviewers may be assuming that it is the bigwigs themselves writing these proposals when the reality is that anyone can write one without the need for preliminary data or a CV to back the work up.

I've thought about this a lot and I don't know where I come down on it, in all honesty. I know that I don't view this pu-pu platter experiment as "proof" of anything. I think the interpretation here is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Those who weren't making the jump because their CVs or ability to write a convincing traditional proposal will be quick to scream vindication, but time will tell if these PIs become successful with these grant moneys. Whereas this "experiment" is being pitched as a look at peer review, we won't know the real results for another 3-5 years when comparisons can be made between the outcomes of each review method.

One other thing that jumped out at me from this article was the following:

In January, the divisions of Integrative Organismal Systems and Environmental Biology began inviting four-page preproposals that reviewers evaluate before soliciting full proposals from a subset of applicants. (The Big Pitch grant reviewers told NSF officials that four pages of information would be better than two.) Chitnis says his own division, MCB, plans to institute the same system soon.

Get ready MCBers.

*IME, a 2 page "sell" is so incredibly different to write and read than a 15 traditional proposal, that they are almost not directly comparable as documents.

**And I am speaking as someone who is not in The Club, by any stretch.

11 responses so far

NSF progress reporting: How much, how little?

May 24 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers], Uncategorized

Suddenly the date for my NSF progress report has come up. This is the first time I'm assembling a progress report for my own grant, so I am walking into this a little blind. There is little in the way of guidelines and the responses from colleagues when I've asked "how much detail do you include in your progress reports?" has scaled linearly with my perception of how much time they sink into these type of tasks.

So how much do people generally write? How much info do you include on the students supported by the grant (let's assume that not everyone who got paid off the grant was working directly on the project).

Where is the line between adequate and not quite enough?

13 responses so far

Setting up a research experience for undergrads

May 22 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers], Uncategorized

There are a lot of ways that undergraduates can fit into active research programs, and no, I'm not talking about all the different glassware they can wash. We tend to have at least one or two undergrad students in the lab during the academic year and many of them have contributed significantly to projects that are now being prepared for publication with them as authors.

Academic year UGs often have 3-12 hours a week they can contribute, depending on their schedule, which can be a bit of a challenge when planning experiments or tasks for them to complete. Some work their hours and go, whereas others find more of a home base in the lab - staying to do homework or study while completing their to do list. I have had tremendous success with students recruited prior to starting their junior year, but this has its own challenges that I won't get into today.

The projects that can be most helpful for the lab and the student are actually work done during the summer. Perhaps you have a site REU, fellowship mechanism or got an REU supplement to an existing grant and now you are faced with finding 400 hours or work for an inexperienced student. One of these can be daunting, but for a variety of unusual reasons, my lab ended up with four such students this summer.

With 1600 hours of time to fill for students who, for the most part are getting their first glimpse of life in the lab, it was critical that I work out a series of projects that are going to be useful but compact. Ten weeks is both a long and short period of time.

I talked to each of the people in my lab and asked them to think about projects they don't have time to deal with, but would be helpful for their work. Most of them had a couple of ideas, which we sat down to work out the feasibility of. Important questions were: 1) Is it something that can be easily taught? 2) Something that one can work on as the learn the bigger context? 3) Involve significant manual work that the lab trainee didn't have time to do, and 4) Have a defined start and end that could be met in our time frame?

The last point might be the most important for these summer projects. With academic year undergrads I often leave things open-ended and let the lab trainees guide them. For summer students it is possible (or even probable) that the ten weeks you have them are the only ten weeks they will be in the lab. I like to ensure that they have their own story to tell at the end - something they feel some ownership over. That may seem simple, but rarely is.

So today we unleash the hordes in the lab and we'll see how it all ends up in ten weeks.

15 responses so far

How do you make people write?

May 18 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There was some discussion last night and this morning on the twitter about training lab peeps to write. People of all ranks come into a lab with varying writing ability - sometimes an undergrad will have rare clarity whereas a postdoc appears to write with a ball pein hammer. How do you get people to at least approach a viable level of written communication?

The answer, of course, is practice. No one ever likes that answer, but it's true. You need to read and write a lot to be proficient at it and some of it can be picked up in grad school and some can't without a shit ton of work.

One of the ways I try and get people to think about what they are writing is by avoiding track changes in the early stages. Don't get me wrong, I think track changes is great. But the ability to breeze through and accept everything without thinking about why, is waaaaaay too easy. So I mark up a hard copy and send it back. This may happen again, depending on where the piece is at, but eventually we switch to track changes.

In the hard copy phase I try and focus on big things. Does the flow need to be changed? Are there major gaps? Do the figures make sense in relation to the text? Once we transition to track changes, the sleeves get rolled up. After a couple rounds of that, things should be in order. If I can, I like to circulate it through another member of the lab at a point when it is getting close to acceptable.

As a final check I like to send it out to someone outside the lab. If we have collaborators on the project then this is an obvious and critical step. If not, I may tap one of my senior colleagues to do a once over. We all have people around who delight in the opportunity to edit, use them. At each step of the way, the trainee makes the changes, not me.

There are many other ways to get people to write for practice, some of which I employ across the board and others for just certain people. It takes a lot of work on their part and a decent amount on mine. But when they get to the point where they can get something finished in just a few drafts back and forth (and act as editors on the writing of others), then it is worth the initial investment.

22 responses so far

Mockery, pity, kid gloves and when the gloves come off

May 17 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Ah, Civility. Always there to lean on when we don't like what is being said, but would rather blame it on how it is being said. After the initial discussion died down around Tuesday's post, along came a commenter to tsk tsk about what he perceived were personal attacks directed at Dr. Jones.

So I ask, are Dr. Jones's statements not personal attacks themselves? These were open comments on a listserv directed at a young female scientist, followed up with other "helpful suggestions" to women that reinforced the idea that they should put everything on hold in order to concentrate on science. This is direct and unambiguous bullying by a senior scientist, aimed at influencing the choices of junior scientists. Apparently that is bad, but the individual should not be held accountable.

So here is my question for the day: At what point is it okay to stand up against bullying? Where is the line between silently or quietly disagreeing with a person's point of view and making a loud statement that their viewpoint should not be tolerated by anyone under any circumstances?

If influencing people's family decisions with the threat of career stagnation isn't enough, then what is the trigger? How egregious does a statement have to be in order for us to respond? If these statements was made by a man, could me call him sexist? Or should we just consider their point of view and go on our merry way?

Micheal McCarthy suggests that by strongly disagreeing and even using sarcasm in a response, we limit the voices that will join the discussion. I would counter with, by quietly and respectfully responding we let the bullies have their say and crush voices of their targets. By passing the buck on standing up to these people, we let them ply their trade down the road. I call bullshit on that.

If a white male can't stand up and say that direct sexism (regardless of the source) is not okay, then who does?

14 responses so far

On work/life "balance"

May 15 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I don't want to alarm you, but a lot of the stuff people go on about when it comes to a discussion of work/life balance is about as real as unicorns. The only "balance" is in choosing which ball you are going to let drop today and deciding not to drop the same ball repeatedly. If you want to call that balance, feel free to amuse yourself.

But to me, the key is that last part: don't keep dropping the same ball. There will be days you miss important things with your kid, or push too much responsibility to your significant other. If those days build up you are looking for trouble. There also have to be days where you say "I can't make that meeting" or "I can't be in the field that long" in order to go home early.

You need to make decisions that will allow you to live your life and accept that you won't be making everyone happy all the time. This includes yourself.

If you choose yourself and your job all the time, you'll probably end up dispensing terrible advice on listserves to junior people, much like Clara Jones has done on the Ecolog-L over the last few weeks.

Dr. Jones started off by basically telling all young female scientists that: A) Babies attract bears*, B) Women go to too great of lengths to achieve their goals, C) Science and families do not mix, D) Guilt caused by having a family you can't interact with will hurt your research output, E) You ladies should be the type of women who can lose a kid and show up (on time!) to work the next day, and (my favorite), F) If you have to have kids, consider surrendering custody, like she did!

BUT WAIT! There's other ways to make a family compatible with a career in science, just freeze your eggs!

Seriously, what the hell is with all you ladies wanting to have kids before you are full professor! While we are at it, I propose to freeze one's parents so they don't get old and need help while you are on the tenure track. Probably safest to freeze any grandparents, good friends and pets while we are at it. Oh, and obviously you're gonna want to freeze your significant other** so they don't feel like you're never around.

Which one of you ladies needs a mentor? I bet we can hook you up with Dr. Jones!

If we continue to frame the discussion regarding work/life balance and gender equality in science as "How can you manage your life to be least obtrusive to your career?" then we are going to keep losing good people, and especially women, from science.

*Between babies and menstruation, I don't know how any women goes in the woods without getting mauled!

**If they are also in academics, make sure to freeze them before they get you! Being frozen for a decade or two totally kills your h-index.

59 responses so far

Bug girl bringing what she claimed were sea monkeys to the Guest Blogge

May 14 2012 Published by under [Et Al]

Go over and say Hai!

One response so far

Whatever it takes to keep the wheels rolling

May 14 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I stopped by to talk to the college-level finance person today to discuss a couple of things and to share notes on dealing with two kids under 5. It's not unusual for us to chat and I needed to work out a few matters with her. Part way through the conversation she mentioned that I seemed to be getting money from all over the university and kiddingly (I think) asked when I was going to be shaking down the president.

If I thought the president could fund a project, I would.

The thing is, even though we have had some success at the granting game, there always seems to be another key piece of data to get or salary to cover. Part of the deal when managing a lab includes finding whatever means to make things happen - usually by digging up the money. And we have spent a lot of money, well beyond what the university promised me when I was hired.

Through various means we've managed to find ~$100k in "extra" money in the last four years. Some of that has come through applying for internal funds and some through finding myself on the wrong end of a balance sheet and having to more "actively" chase some money down. If one includes student fellowships (not TAs, but direct merit-based research fellowships for grad students), then the lab has pulled in an additional $150k or so.

Yes, this takes time away from chasing the Big Money, but sometimes you need to cobble a few things together to get you there and $250K isn't exactly small money, either. It's not always fun or comfortable, but my job is selling our science so we can keep churning out the best data possible. Sometimes that is to grant agencies and sometimes it is to the Research Office here.

Whatever it takes to enable the lab peeps to do what they do.

6 responses so far

Graphic Fridays: Lab Productivity

May 11 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If you are like me, you either walked into your new lab as a PI, or plan to do so, ready to roll. There is a lot that needs to get done, but how long could it take, right?

Chances are, if you got a PI job, that you did a postdoc in a lab that was running full steam. I did both previous stops in labs of assistant professors who made tenure while I was there. In both cases, the labs were established enough to be just gaining a reputation for themselves, but hadn't fully broken through yet. By the time I left each, the story was different and each one had expanded significantly.

At the time it never occurred to me to consider the early days of each lab, but thinking back, each took some time to get established. However, walking into my own lab I assumed that in a year or two I would be DOING ALL TEH SCIENCE!!!!

Hhahahaha, yeaaahhhh. About that....

I'm sure there are people who do magic in a year or two and crap nature papers like they have some sort of scientific dysentery. Good for them. But for the rest of us, a lab is built in small steps with the occasional home run and the more than occasional strike out. It is torturous at times and progress seems glacial because you always feel like you are behind. But at some point (different for everyone) you can look back and surprise yourself at the progress you have made.

14 responses so far

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